(Inside Science TV) – Scientists are looking for solutions to modern-day problems by taking a cue from sharks, geckos, butterflies and plants. Now, researchers are looking at a certain leaf with some unique properties for their latest inspiration.
"One of the things we've studied for a number of years is a lotus leaf…which is known to repel water to keep surfaces clean," Bharat Bhushan, a materials scientist at The Ohio State University, said.
You may have seen lotus leaves outside, but did you know they're naturally water repellent? The leaf's bumpy surface causes water to bead up and roll off. Taking inspiration from the leaf, materials scientist Philip Brown developed a coating that repels oil instead of water. "The technique that we use is a spray-coating technique which means that we can deposit this coating onto a range of different surfaces," Brown said.
The spray-on coating is made from nanoparticles -- tiny particles that are smaller than the finest speck of dust -- but when combined in the right way, they can do big things. Scientists spray-coated this mesh material and watched as a solution of oil and water -- dyed blue -- was poured over it. Almost like magic, the oil beaded up and collected on top while the water was filtered through the material. "We've also done a few tests on a wide variety of oils because oils can be complex," Brown said.
The technology could be used to clean up large oil spills someday – who can forget the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico – if you think something like that won't happen twice, think again.
"Since the Gulf Oil spill we've had many smaller spills," Bhushan said. "There's one off the coast of Santa Barbara, and another I remember reading about, these things happen all the time."
The technology is still years away from being used, but scientists say it's cheap to manufacture, could be scaled up to capture any size oil spill, and it could be adapted to repel both water and dirt from windshields.
"It's nice to work on something where you can really imagine it having an impact on the world and being able to help reduce our impact on our environment," Brown said.